Bicycle History: The Cycling & Racism Connection

The murder of George Floyd (and so many other tragedies) has sparked a call for social justice and an end to racism. With this in mind, in the midst of the trial of Derek Chauvin, I took a look at cycling’s historical role in racism and segregation. Sadly, I discovered cycling was part of the problem back in the 1890s, and well beyond.

The League of American Wheelmen was the nation’s largest and most powerful cycling organization in the late 1800s. The question of whether Blacks could be members of the LAW was debated back and forth, over the years, with William W. Watts, of Louisville, Kentucky, the leading advocate for barring African-Americans from membership. 

At the LAW’s national conventions in 1892 and 1893, Watts wasn’t able to get the two-thirds majority vote required to ban Blacks and make the league a “white’s only” organization.

And then, at the 1894 convention …

The vexed question of the color line was put to a vote without debate and the objectors to the admission of colored wheelmen to the organization were in the majority by a vote of 127 to 54, and colored cyclists are consequently barred from the L.A.WThe Kansas City Star, Missouri, February 21, 1894.

The League of American Wheelmen has inserted the word “white” in its constitution, thus drawing the color line in that association. Isn’t this evoluting backward? Even pugilism recognizes the equal rights of the colored manThe Richmond Item, Indiana, February 21, 1894.

The Oakland Cycle Club was comprised of 57 Black men in 1896. In an article in The San Francisco Examiner, the president of the club, Harry Williams, said …

It is simply preposterous that we, who are Americans, cannot become members of this organization just because of our color. It’s a shame and an outrage … What am I going to do? Why fight this thing till we get recognition.

In the months leading up to the 1897 LAW national convention, Black cyclists from around the country argued in favor of recognition from and membership in the organization. Attorneys were retained to argue that prohibiting the membership of Black wheelmen and wheelwomen was illegal. Leaders were selected to attend the annual meeting and present their case. 

And then, at he convention …

The proposition to admit colored members to full membership was defeated: Yeas, 153; nays, 100. It required a two-third voteThe Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 12, 1897

This is from the website of the League of American Bicyclists (the new name of the LAW) …

The story, and perhaps even the existence of the 1894 color bar, must have been forgotten in the passing of time. The ban would linger until 1999 when League of American Bicyclist’s President Earl Jones signed a resolution revoking the 1894 decision and issuing an apology on behalf of the League, as well as a posthumous membership to Major Taylor. Jones, upon passing the resolution, stated: “Finally, I hope that the League, by taking this step, can lead cycling into more diverse and representative participation.”

Major Taylor (1878 – 1932) was an African-American cyclist. He turned professional in 1896 and won several world championships, set a string of records over the next decade and was considered the greatest cyclist of his day. Taylor faced racism on and off the track, and was often barred from competing in the south. 

Here’s a sample of what he had to put up with, during an event in Buffalo …

Maj. Taylor, the negro racer, said he would have done better than 1:54 [in the mile] had the band not played “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” which made him madThe Buffalo Enquirer, September 29, 1897.

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